NOTTINGHAM, UK – Heading into this weekend’s games the scenario was simple for the Nottingham Panthers, win one of your two games in Belfast and you’ll be the first Panthers side for 57-years to be crowned league champions.
Since the birth of the Elite League, in 2003, Nottingham have been the perennial bridesmaid at the party on more than one occasion without ever been seated at the head table with all eyes focusing on them. For the Panthers the glory has come when the Elite League playoffs roll round, they have claimed that crown three times since 2003, and in the Challenge Cup, with their name appearing on the trophy five times during the same time period.
Friday night in Belfast though that all changed as, finally, Nottingham was able to celebrate their own league championship, and on the ice of the team who pushed them almost to the very end.
The final points gap between the two sides will be decided when the regular season comes to an end next weekend but with Nottingham going into the first of two meetings against Belfast with a six point lead only a Giants win would keep their title challenge alive.
As expected the first period was a rather equal affair, both teams were whistled for the same amount of penalties and the game got off to the cracker jack start the, close to 6,000 fans hoped for. David Clarke and Kelsey Wilson for Nottingham exchanged early pleasantries with Belfast’s Brock Matheson and Daymen Rycroft, all four enjoying a five minute stint in the penalty box within the first six minutes of the game.
Following those interruptions a hockey game did begin and it was Belfast who took the upper hand late in the first with Noah Clarke converting a penalty shot, however the teams would go into the period break all square as Bruce Graham added to his goal tally on the powerplay just twenty seconds later. By the end of the second period there was a theme appearing with, once again, neither team been able to gain the edge. David Clarke was able to stay out of the penalty box long enough to cancel out Kevin Saurette’s early strike to knot things up at two a-piece, with Belfast’s captain, Adam Keefe, returning the favour with less than a minute to go in the period by tying the score at three following David Ling’s goal midway through the middle session.
That was the last of the good news for the home side as penalty trouble came back to bite them and hard. Pat Galivan was the player to profit from Robby Sandrock’s two minute sentence for hooking late in the third to give the Panthers the lead again and it was left to Matt Francis to put the icing on the cake along with the black and yellow ribbons on the trophy for Nottingham thanks to his empty net goal within the final minute.
So the race for the title is over and it’s Nottingham’s name that will be etched into the trophy for the first time. Now their focus will be on the playoffs and the Challenge Cup and the chance to become only the second side in Elite League history to claim all three titles in a single season. That all comes later, as for tonight it’s a glass of champagne to celebrate, for the players, before the real party begins on Sunday when the team returns home.
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